Post Overview: 20 Unique & free things to do in New York City
I know I’m not the first person to try to save a buck by looking into free things to do in NYC. I mean, you came across this article somehow, right? 😉
Casual drinks and dinner dates can really stretch the budget thin for New Yorkers. However let me be the one to tell you visiting the city (and having a great time) is more attainable than one might think!
Even though I’m captain obvious when I mention how expensive the Big Apple can be, there’s a multitude of fun and memorable things to do for free in New York City.
During my decade of living in New York City I’ve learned of a few unique pastimes that anybody can enjoy, regardless of interests and free of charge. In a city full of hustlers you have to learn to ball on a budget, and class is in session.
Visiting New York City? If you haven’t decided where to stay (yet) check out our helpful guide on Where to Stay in New York City (The best neighborhoods for first timers +2 to avoid). Don’t have time? Here’s our favorite hotel in NYC, hands down.
Free things to do in New York City
#20. Visit the tomb of President Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant was a decorated General and the 18th President of the United States. Grant’s wish was to be buried next to his wife when he passed. The request seems simple enough, but it wasn’t. His options for a final resting place were limited because women were not allowed to be buried in notable military cemeteries at the time.
When Grant died from throat cancer in 1885, the mayor of New York offered to have him buried in NYC. His wife, Julia Grant, supported the offer and a large fundraising initiative took place to build what would become the largest tomb in North America.
Today, visitors can pay their respects to President Ulysses S. Grant and Julia Grant by visiting his tomb in the Upper West Side. It’s one of the most unique free things to do in NYC.
Grant’s Tomb is undoubtedly one of the most famous buildings in New York City due to its significance, especially with history buffs. You can get free tours of the mausoleum through the National Park Service.
Address: W 122nd St &, Riverside Dr, New York, 10027
Further reading: 11 Important National Park Sites in New York City
#19. People watch at Washington Square Park
Washington Square Park is an iconic NYC park weaved into the fabric of the city’s culture.
Located in the heart of the charming Greenwich Village, this is one of the most beautiful parks in New York City. There seems to be a gravitational pull on this place because (like most New Yorkers) I can’t help but swing by whenever I’m within a one-mile vicinity.
Best known for the monolithic grand marble arch that sits at the northern entrance of the park and overlooks the central fountain. The Washington Square Arch was built to commemorate the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration.
Many folks consider this one of the most inviting parks in NYC and come from all over the city to let their hair down and be themselves. The atmosphere makes Washington Park a great spot for one of my favorite New York City pastimes, people-watching. The energetic mood is contagious and you’ll notice park visitors from all corners of the world.
From suited businesswomen to relaxed college students and nervous tourists, you’ll see it all. The stars of the show tend to be the talented street musicians that give the park an easy-going vibe. The entertainment helps make this one of the best free things to do in NYC.
Further reading: 15 ICONIC New York City Parks You Can’t Afford to Miss
#18. Relax at Coney Island
Coney Island’s famed amusement parks and beaches are hot commodities during New York City’s summer months. I’ve spent entire days here with friends hanging out on the beaches enjoying one of the best things do for free in New York City.
Pack snacks from home and bring a beach towel to get some color on the beach. If action is more your speed, bring a football or volleyball so you can work on your beach bod with some friends.
And of course, the going for a dip in the ocean is one of the best things to do for free in NYC.
This vibrant neighborhood holds a lot of history and has fun things to do for all ages. Peruse the boardwalk and take in the shops and carnival rides. You’re never short of fun summer activities in this New York City neighborhood.
#17. Rockefeller Plaza (Holidays)
The Rockefeller Plaza is a collection of 19 buildings commissioned by the Rockefeller family during the Great Depression in Midtown. The buildings have housed stores, office spaces, and art galleries among other things. In terms of free things to do in NYC, checking out the Rockefeller Plaza is paramount during one season, winter.
The Rockefeller Christmas Tree is an annual Christmas tradition that dates back to 1933 officially. Unofficially, construction workers who were thankful to have job during the Great Depression put up the first tree in 1931.
The tree is decorated with more than 50,000 lights and topped with a breathtaking (and bright) Swarovski star that is as equally as impressive as the tree. The whole Rockefeller Plaza resonates with holiday cheer and checking it out is one of the best free things to do in NYC.
In fact it’s so popular it’s estimated more than 100 million people visit the tree a year.
Even if you’re not visiting during the holidays, Rockefeller plaza still warrants a visit. There’s usually a seasonal art pieces on display. Open shops and cafe’s among the towering midtown buildings also add to the New York City vibe.
Address: 45 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10111
Further reading: Christmas in New York City: 20 MAGICAL Things to Do (& 3 to Avoid)
#16. Oculus Mall & 9/11 Memorial
Whether you go to the 9/11 Museum or not, make sure to take in the grandeur of the moving 9/11 Memorial right next to the museum. It’s one of the best free things to do in NYC and an unforgettable experience.
The 9/11 Memorial is a never-ending waterfall into the depths of the earth with names of victims engraved in stone. The overwhelming might of the monolithic One World Trade Center keeps these somber memories safe in its shadow.
The Oculus Mall is right across the street from the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, making it a no brainer while you’re in the area.
The Oculus Mall looks like the spine of a fish long forgotten. It’s quite the architectural feat! Not only is it an actual mall, it’s also a functioning subway hub. Definitely check this out, it’s very unique and one of the best things to do for free in NYC.
Address: 180 Greenwich St, New York, NY 10007
#15. American History Museum (Tri-State area Residents)
Welcoming 5 million visitors per year and spanning all aspect of the natural world, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City is considered one of the greatest natural history museums in the world. And if you’re a resident of the tri-state area (NY, NJ, CT) it’s one of the best (nearly) free things to do in NYC!
Residents of the Tri-State area (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut) still have to book tickets online like everybody else, but there is an option to “pay what you want”. Simply enter what you would like to pay when prompted (minimum is $1) and provide proper ID when you arrive at the museum.
As a local of the Upper West Side I frequent the American Museum of Natural History whenever I’m itching to get out of my apartment.
The AMNH is home to 33 million specimens, yet only 3% are on display (and even that amount can get quite overwhelming!). It’s a great museum to visit with kids or science buffs since it’s so inspiring and eye-opening.
Address: 200 Central Park West, New York, NY 10024
#14. Explore St. Patrick’s Cathedral
St. Patrick’s Cathedral is the most beautiful cathedral in New York City. There I said it. Visiting it is among the best things to do for free in NYC.
Located right off 5th Avenue, this Neo-Gothic style cathedral has been stopping people in their tracks since its completion in 1879. But it’s not hard to see why this is arguably the most popular church in New York City.
Welcoming more than 5 million visitors per year, this iconic New York City cathedral took 21 years to build because construction halted during the Civil War.
With a seating capacity of 2,000 people per mass, this is one of the largest cathedrals in NYC. Touring the interior is a no-brainer, and self guided tours are one of the best free things to do in NYC so swing by if the doors are open. If you want a more in-depth experience, sign up for a guided tour.
You’ll be amazed by the stained windows, which consist of 3,700 stained glass panels. The star of the show is the breathtaking Rose Window which spans 26 feet. You’ll also notice the 20 alters located within the confines of this sacred space, two of which were designed by Tiffany & Co.
There’s also a basement crypt that serves as the final resting place of every cardinal of New York.
The cathedral was recently renovated to the tune of $177 million, so you can bet it’s a sight for sore eyes.
Fact: St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC is home to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, who is currently Timothy Michael Cardinal Dolan and he reports directly to the Pope.
Address: 5th Ave, New York, NY 10022
#13. Watch Shakespeare in the Park
If you’re visiting New York City in the summer make sure you don’t miss Shakespeare in the Park! The Public Theater has been putting on productions of Shakespeare for 60 years now, making it one of the longest running free things to do in NYC.
Hosted at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park and put on with serious production value, the shows are enjoyable for audiences of all ages. It’s a professional grade play, and even if you’re not a “theater geek” there is still a great time to be had.
Tickets are distributed day of and are not always easy to get your hands on, however if you’re lucky enough to snag a few you’ll be glad you did. You’ll need to register with them online to get a Public Theater ID. Once you’re all squared away you’ll qualify for the tickets that are distributed on public show days at 12 noon.
Enjoying Broadway caliber theater in Central Park sure qualifies as one of the best free things to do in NYC if you ask me.
#12. Explore Governors Island
Only a 10 minute ferry ride from lower Manhattan, Governor’s Island is a relaxing reprieve from the nonstop pace of New York City. Although technically getting there will cost you ($2 round-trip for adults) there’s an abundance of great and free things to do once you get there.
You will find history dating back to the Revolutionary War making it a great spot for history buffs. You can walk around Fort Jay and Castle Williams which are both run by the National Park Service.
The other weekend one of my friends suggested spending Saturday at Governors Island. Having never visited, I eagerly accepted the invite.
We spent four hours exploring Governors Island and I was quite impressed. The island is full of public green spaces and we saw a lot of folks picnicking and napping on the lawns. Even if the plan is to just come here to tan on a summer day, its among the best free things to do in NYC.
There’s a cool rock outcropping visitors can climb to get views of NYC (that’s where I got the photo from) and the Statue of Liberty.
#11. Be a part of a live audience
One of the best free things to do in NYC is to be part of a live audience at a tv taping. Most of the available shows are late night talk shows and If I’m being honest, it’s kind of bizarre seeing your favorite shows being taped.
It’s a remarkable experience though. The amount of work that goes into producing a single episode is astounding and seeing the hosts and guests up close is surreal.
During the fall of 2017 right before the Macy’s day parade I got the opportunity to attend a taping of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. During a commercial break Fallon was extremely personable and started interacting with the audience and walking around us.
It’s a memory I will never forget. To be honest it’s one of the best free thing I’ve done in NYC.
I highly suggest trying to get tickets to a live taping. Most of them are free, you just need to apply in advance and hang tight on a waitlist. I know it might seem like a long-shot, but my wife and I have gotten into about half of the tapings we’ve applied for.
Local’s Tip: The Rockefeller Center (where a lot of TV tapings happen) is home to the NBC store on the first floor. Stop by for some merch of the TV show you just took part in!
#10. Walk the High Line
The High Line is one of the most unique parks in New York City and goodness, it’s one of the best things to do for free in New York City.
Before the High Line was even conceived, this area was used as an elevated rail-line for freight trains delivering cargo. The the demand for this service became moot with the rise of trucking so the railroad was abandoned and neglected until Mayor Bloomberg approved a plan to transform it into a city park.
The High Line was opened in 2009 and became an instant success.The elevated promenade stretches for 1.5 miles and receives an average 8 million visitors annually.
The best time to visit the High Line is either spring or summer when the plants are in bloom. Regardless of when you visit though you’ll see beautiful murals, unique art and rotating sculptures. To that end I encourage all my friends to visit, especially considering it’s one of the best free things to do in NYC.
#9. Movies on the Lawn at Bryant Park
You can find Bryant Park perfectly tucked away among the towering office buildings that make up the heart of Midtown Manhattan. Clocking in at 9.6-acres, this isn’t the largest park in New York City by any stretch of the imagination, but it often feels the most full.
The lawn at the center of the Park is host to a stage and screen where every year they play movies among skyscrapers. A date or hangout here won’t cost a thing and it’s one of the most popular free things to do in NYC.
You can expect flocks of New Yorkers from all five boroughs as well as tourists clamoring for a good spot. The entire field gets filled with cheery folks on picnic blankets and you can’t help but feel like you’re in a movie yourself.
During the summer the lawn opens every Monday at 5PM and each film starts at 8PM. Food and beverage from Hester Street Fair is available for purchase, as well as beer, snacks and wine from Stout NYC.
Address: Sixth Ave, between 40th & 42nd Streets
#8. Ice Skate at Bryant Park
Continuing the list of free things to do in NYC, Bryant Park makes a second consecutive appearance thanks to their ice skating. The magic of New York City during the holiday season is magnified by this charming winter pastime.
The lawn, which plays host to so many other free things to do in NYC like yoga and movies in the park, is transformed into a 17,000 square foot ice rink. Admission is free to those who provide their own skates with tickets booked in advance. There is charged skate rentals and storage fees for those who need the services.
My suggestion for those hoping to enjoy this free New York City activity is to bring a backpack and skates. Backpacks are allowed on the ice, so put your shoes in your backpack while you have the skates on and simply make the switch when you get off the ice.
Address: Sixth Ave, between 40th & 42nd Streets
#7. Concerts in the Park
Since 1965 catching a performance by the New York Philharmonic has been considered one of the best things to do for free in NYC. Their “Concerts in the Park” series has been a staple of summers in the Big Apple for thousands of New Yorkers.
Pairing world-class classical music with incredible open air venues would normally cost an arm and a leg. Thankfully these events are complimentary and help further the reach of classical music to a broad audience.
I encourage all my friends to make it a priority to experience a show at least once. Classical music isn’t everyone’s taste but seeing it live is entirely different. It’s epic and monumental, and an experience you won’t soon forget.
Especially considering the shows are the best free activities in NYC there is nothing to lose and everything to gain. The NY Phil plays shows in most major parks at least once a summer so odds are you won’t even have to travel!
#6. Kayak East River
During the summer months New Yorkers are able to Kayak in the East River free of charge so long as you reserve your spot in advance on their website.
Although this is one of the best free things to do in NYC they do encourage donations in order to help the program remain free of charge.
I never even considered that water sports could be an option in New York City. I mean the place is called the Concrete Jungle, isn’t it? But the Brooklyn Bridge Park Boathouse said “hold my beer”.
There is the ability for kids to kayak with a guardian, as well as Kayak Polo for the more competitive crowd. I can think of few better things to do during the New York City summer.
Address: 10 Montague St, Brooklyn, NY 11201
#5. Explore the NYPL
The New York Public Library is well worth the pit-stop during your visit to NYC. Designed in a Beaux-Arts style, this building stands in stark contrast to the glass and iron it surrounds. Being as it’s a public library spending time exploring it is one of the best free things to do in NYC.
When it opened to the public in 1911, the New York Public Library was officially the largest marble building ever built in the country. No small task, considering it took 16 years to construct this epic structure. However the wait was worth it — more than 50,000 people showed up on opening day.
Depending on the time of year folks visit it’s also a superb way to avoid inclement weather. Whether it’s the summer heat or the winter chill, the library can serve as a nice (and free!) reprieve from mother nature.
One of my favorite free things to do in New York City is to find a book and plop down to catch up on reading. Being in a historic building somehow makes it so much more romantic and really gives main-character vibes.
Fun fact: The two lions in front of the library are called Patience and Fortitude, here’s why.
#4. Ride the Staten Island Ferry
Although it’s not a yacht, riding the Staten Island Ferry is a can’t miss experience and one of the best free things to do in NYC.
The ferry departs from lower Manhattan and offers striking views of New York, so you’ll want to be as close to the edge of the ferry as possible and have your phone ready for a picture. Not to mention the view of the Statue of Liberty is epic and even made me emotional the first time I saw it.
The Staten Island Ferry is beloved and gets quite crowded! It takes approximately 22 million people a year (about 70,000 passengers a day) between Manhattan and Staten Island.
Just know that you must disembark the ferry when it reaches Staten Island and line back up to board toward Manhattan. It might seem like a pain, but you’re getting to experience one of the best things to do for free in NYC twice!
Address to board in Manhattan: 4 Whitehall Street New York NY 10004
#3. Hang out at Little Island
Little Island is one of the most unique parks in New York City. It’s a redesigned pier that extends over the Hudson River with a beautiful design meant to be an oasis in the concrete jungle. Access won’t cost you a penny making this one of the best things to do for free in NYC!
The views are spectacular and the experience feels like being on an adult playground. I bring all of my out of town guests here because it’s so unique. Green grass compliments gorgeous landscape design with ample seating and views to enjoy from.
If there’s a hot day in the forecast you can expect to find locals stretched out on the numerous lawns with picnic baskets and friends.
Address: Pier 55 at Hudson River Park Hudson River Greenway, NY 10014
Bonus: Neighboring Pier 57 is also home to a park, only this one is on a rooftop! It’s a popular spot for locals to sprawl out and try to get some sun. It’s not uncommon to see bathing suits and sun hats up there. Like hanging out at Little Island, this is one of the best things to do for free in NYC.
#2. Central Park
Spending time in New York City’s backyard is one of the best free things to do in NYC. Central Park exudes a romantic charm that few can resist falling in love with. And there’s no denying that visiting the park is a must-do whether it’s your first visit to the Big Apple or hundredth.
Whether you’re with your pup, kids, significant other or alone, entertainment always ensues at the 800+ acre oasis and it won’t cost you a thing! Spending the day in Central Park is one of the best free things to do in New York City.
There’s street performers playing music and serenading those passing by, wildlife going about their day to day business and abundant opportunities for my favorite pastime, people watching.
Bring a book, binoculars or running shoes. It’s easy to spend an entire day here for free so long as you come prepared!
For more free things to do in NYC check out 15 Iconic Things to Do in Central Park (Happy Local’s Guide).
#1. Enjoy A Parade
The best free thing to do in NYC is to enjoy one of the many colorful parades the city streets host every year. It can take a little planning, but it’s well worth the effort.
Celebrating a plethora of cultures and traditions the parades can be seen as a metaphor for the melting pot New York City truly is. New Yorkers come out to celebrate their neighbors, whether they’re a part of that community or not.
With more than 40 parades a year, it can feel like there’s one every other week. Heck, my wife and I were in the Upper East Side a few months ago and when we tried to go home all of Fifth Ave. was closed. We heard cheering and looked down the street to see the Greek Independence Day Parade coming right at us. We had no clue, but cheered as the procession passed us by.
The parades are one of the best things to do for free in NYC. Bring your water bottle and comfortable shoes to stand in and enjoy the show. Regardless of whether or not you have a horse in the race it’s fun to celebrate the occasion with your neighbors and guests.
Some of the most popular (and free) parades in New York City include:
- Macy’s Day Parade
- Pride March
- St. Patrick’s Day Parade
- Lunar New Year
- Carnaval Cubano
20 Free Things to do in NYC (Post Summary)
- Enjoy a parade
- Spend the day in Central Park
- Hang out at Little Island
- Ride the Staten Island ferry
- Explore the New York Public Library
- Kayak on the East River
- Listen to Concerts in the Park
- Ice skate at Bryant Park
- Watch a movie at Bryant Park
- Walk the High Line
- Be a part of a live audience
- Explore Governors Island
- Watch Shakespeare in the Park
- Explore St. Patrick’s Cathedral
- Explore the American Museum of Natural History
- Oculus Mall & 9/11 Memorial
- Rockefeller Plaza (during the holidays)
- Relax at Coney Island
- People watch at Washington Square Park
- Visit President Grant’s Tomb
Map of 20 free things to do in NYC
And there it is! My list of 20 unique and free things to do in NYC. Let me know if there’s anything I missed!